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Being a Subject

As in previous fall semesters, I’m teaching (jointly with my colleague Nik Gisborne) a course that tries to unite modern modes of thinking about language with the description of English grammar. Just basic, ordinary grammar of the sort you would think might be taught in grade school (and once was). And once more, as I reaquaint myself with some of the statements obediently repeated in virtually all traditional grammars, I am staggered that anyone could ever have believed claims that are so obvio…

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The Vortex of Authorial Avoidance

vortex_artWelcome to the vortex, the tourbillion, where we turn and turn in the widening gyre of authorial avoidance of whatever truly dire error we may have committed in the penning of our novel. Step right into the typeset proofs. There—feel that hot wind blowing at your neck? It’s urging you to seize on something—anything, so long as it is minute, fixable, of no importance to anyone save you and the managing editor, to obsess over until the deadline for returning the galleys. Let it draw you onwa…

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Truth in Adjectivizing

As sure as students return to campus in autumn, this is the time of year when  Starbucks releases its Pumpkin Spice Latte, a beverage that seems to have a particularly vocal following. I’ve ordered  it myself. It’s sweet and scented and, unless you hold the cream, very rich.

Recently I’ve noticed a pushback, though, and not from health-conscious types. People are complaining about the absence of pumpkin in pumpkin spice latte, as if this were the coffee drinkers’ equivalent of a WikiLeak.

Recipe…

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‘-y’ Not?

This all went down in the last month:

  • Facebook comment: "As I know from my rednecky upstate second hometown. ... "
  • Email from a friend: "This morning I was thinking that my hairdresser is getting so Jesus-y with me."
  • Headline from the Baltimore City Paper: "College Guys, Stop Being So Rapey."
  • Homer Simpson line, to Bart: “Hey, boy, we’re supposed to be acting religiousy." (Admittedly, this came from a 2010 episode, "The Greatest Story Ever D'Oh'ed," but I saw it a couple of weeks ago durin...
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Why?

My favorite question word is: Why?

Why?

Because, as journalists and children know, it’s the best way to get people talking.

Questions are different from statements. If you’re listening to a statement (I’m happy with this), you aren’t expected to do anything. But a question calls for a response.

The least response is to a yes/no question. (Are you happy? Yes.)

An interviewer can get more out of a person by asking a wh- question: who, where, when, what.

Who? (a person).

Where? (a place).

When? (a …

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Dumber and Dumb

Steven Pinker: "so cliche' is so wrong.

Steven Pinker: “So cliché” is so not good.

The other week, I got an email that referred to an online article I wrote last year, “7 Grammar Rules You Really Should Pay Attention To.” The email read, in its entirety: “There are three grammar errors in the title of your article.”

I was pretty sure that one of the alleged errors was using a preposition to end a sentence with, which isn’t an error, and isn’t really a question of grammar. But I couldn’t figure out the other two, so, against my better …

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First-World Problems

Matthew Good

Once upon a time, during the Cold War in the latter part of the 20th century, somebody pointed out that each of the nations of the earth belonged to one of three worlds. The first was ours, the world of the developed and more-or-less-democratic countries. The second was the world of our enemies, the Communist bloc, led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and including its European satellites along with China, Cuba, North Vietnam and the like. The third world was the leftovers…

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Better Together for Whom?

yes-no2The organization campaigning for a No vote in the September 18 Scottish independence referendum chose as its name, and initially its primary slogan, the phrase “Better Together.” Recently the campaign has been floundering, and showing signs of panic. Its political missteps have been much discussed in Britain. But the vagueness and evasiveness of the “Better Together” slogan has not occasioned much comment.

Better together is an adjective phrase [or sometimes, as a commenter below reminds me, an …

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Speaking Geek

Man-Woman-Geek-1920x1200I’ve always envied people born in small countries like Belgium who grow up learning several different languages. And while I remain stumped by languages written in any script other than the Latin alphabet, I still dream of unencumbered months when I can get started on basic Mandarin.

I am also a fiction writer, who believes that there are uses to which language can be put that are different in kind, not just in degree, from the uses of everyday communication; that language, for the poet, is oil …

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Students: Please Email Me

EmailI think email is one of the best things to happen to college teaching in the last 15 years.

I have felt compelled to defend the virtues of email for the past 10 days or so in the wake of a piece in Inside Higher Ed that describes the success of a Salem College faculty member’s policy that bans almost all student emails. The quoted policy from the syllabus allows students to use email only to set up face-to-face meetings. (Tucked later in the article where I think readers might miss it is a not…